OK, we’re nine days into 2013. Time to roll up our sleeves and put the nation back on the rack for some long overdue maintenance. For starters, we need to take a look at the media and how we get our news.
It’s no secret that America’s political dialog is more polarized today than at any time since the Red Scare of the 1950’s. Much of it has to do with the 24-hour news cycle. In the olden days, when are cars were powered by Hi-Test and hydramatic transmissions, and we all gathered at Ye Olde Drug Store for a grape Nehi, news came from one of three networks, four if you counted radio’s Mutual network. ABC, NBC, and CBS ran a half hour of national news every night. So Frank Reynolds and Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor had only thirty minutes, eight of which went to commercials, to get it right. And they had to wait until your local affiliate ran the local news. If you wanted something more in-depth, you had 20/20, 60 Minutes, and a host of Sunday morning talk shows that generally made sure all sides got a fair hearing.
Underpinning all this was something called the Fairness Doctrine. The airwaves don’t belong to the networks. They belong to the public, and the networks pay license fees to use them. It’s your electromagnetic spectrum. If someone needs exclusive use to a narrow band of it, why shouldn’t they have to pay? Anyway, it said if you were going to take a political stance on the air, you had to give equal hearing to the other side. It wasn’t perfect. Witness George Takei’s run for office when his opponent declared that every rerun of Star Trek featuring the man who would become the Coolest Gay Person in America one day was free advertising and wanted an hour of free air time for every episode aired. I know it’s bullshit, and you know it’s bullshit. George definitely called bullshit, and his opponent did not care if it was bullshit. Legal parsing – which could be a blog post in and of itself – always leads to abuse of even the best-crafted laws.
The Fairness Doctrine went away in the 1980’s, and I’m not so sure that was a wise idea. For it gave rise to that bane of AM talk radio, the political talk show. In the beginning was Rush Limbaugh. And I will admit, I thought he was pretty funny in the beginning. After all, the New Deal coalition, which passed its sell-by date shortly after Watergate, needed deflating. Rush was just the guy. If you looked at him as a humorist in those days, he actually served a purpose.
Then Rush started taking himself seriously as a pundit. And clones started popping up. G. Gordon Liddy, a man so crazy he scared Nixon’s inner staff, and he was one of them, had a show. Soon you had a spate of burned-out ex-disk jockeys like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck declaring themselves the moral guardians of American political thought. The liberals, not to be outdone, attempted to balance this with Air America, featuring mostly comedians who had stopped being funny long before the network went live, a wine critic (Tom Likas), and a washed-up ex-sportscaster (Keith Olbermann). You know what?
Substitute left-wing rhetoric for right-wing rhetoric, and it still sounds exactly the same. These people don’t take a stand. They stir up fear. They point to boogey men who do not exist. Or when a real one pops up, they still point to boogey men who do not exist.
Worse, we, the people, keep giving these pinheads power. We don’t listen to opposing viewpoints, take them seriously, and rethink our positions. No, we want someone to echo our beliefs and tell us we got it all figured out and demonize others who haven’t come to the same conclusion. Then we call it “sticking to our principles.” Bullshit. These jackals sell us on that idea when really all they’re selling is fear. Wait for the next crisis to come. I’m writing this on December 29, as the Fiscal Cliff (There’s a myth if there ever was one) approaches. I’m pretty sure in the intervening ten days, something blew up, went bankrupt, or got shot up, and your favorite pundit is fairly frothing at the mouth blaming illegal immigrants or the one percent or whatever new boogey man one of them invents.
It doesn’t help that the 24-hour news channels all stake a position. Look, if your job is news, you’re not entitled to a position. Your job is to report the facts, even when they contradict your worldview. If you got that backwards, you failed.
The basic problem with media in America is that they sell us on this idea that we serve our beliefs. In reality, our beliefs should serve us.
But that requires a little thought. Which would make the commercials they run a lot less effective, wouldn’t it?